Over a decade back, I lost my mom. The blow of her cancer diagnosis at 64-years-old, of those first few months of navigating cancer’s protective environments, clinical trials, chemotherapy, transfusions, knowing that there would be a definite day in the future in which my mom would not exist in the flesh, was crushing. The difference, I learned, between a cancer diagnosis and a clean bill of health, is that with cancer, death is certain. Without it, you can go on pretending tomorrow will come.
Eternity is not our legacy. The people we love will die. We will die, too. We know this, and yet we spend most of our lives forgetting. When we’re vibrant and healthy, we feel immortal. It’s often not until someone we love – or ourselves – flirt with death, that we begin to understand the depth of our attachment and fixation on staying alive.
It’s said that a dying person often knows they are about to depart; they sense the end. Although I knew my mom was going to die, it was still a shock when I sat beside her motionless body that bright Sunday afternoon in May so many years back, and the paramedic said, “I am sorry for your loss.” It felt as if the earth under my feet had vanished. The night before, at dinner, she had seemed somewhat distant as she picked at her salad, but I didn’t anticipate death was less than 24-hours away.
As her coffin, its oak finish gleaming, was lowered into the ground, it was clear she was not coming back. For weeks after her funeral, I struggled thinking about her motionless body confined underground, while we were all above, moving about. I visited her grave in the cemetery weekly, sitting beside her remains, remembering her low, throaty voice, her whole-hearted laugh, the outrageous things she said (which were typically what everyone in a room or conversation were thinking), and shared tidbits of my life with her – sometimes aloud, sometimes silently. I wanted to believe her soul was beyond the grave, but in those early days of after, I didn’t feel her presence. I fixated on her icy hands and slightly ajar eyes, which looked off in the distance as she lay dead in her bed. I wondered what she had seen in those last moments.
This is what I know now: time moves you forward; it lets you heal. You never forget, but the depth of your pain diminishes. New chapters of your life unfold, and you keep living.
My parents loved sunshine, beach, and the ocean. Growing up, we vacationed on islands: Jamaica, St. Maarten, Aruba, and Puerto Rico, which became our monthly getaway. My mom named me after a little girl with blond flowy ringlets she met at the beach before I was born. Back when we lived in New York, my mom was famous for sitting out on our porch, taking in the sun while she read a book or a magazine, and now, so many years later, my father loves to sunbathe daily, reading the Wall Street Journal or closing his eyes to bask in the heat. When my parents relocated to Florida from the east coast, a year before my mom’s cancer diagnosis, they were elated to leave winters behind and live in perpetual summer. I like to think of them in the glow of the sun, where things seem easier, freer, where the darkness of cancer and heart failure is overpowered by light. I like to think that my mom saw something beyond the sun that pulled her closer, reassured her leaving earth was going to be okay, that she would become part of the glow, and spread the light. Perhaps it’s the same image my dad sees now during his daily dose of sunshine.
As I witness my father’s health decline, I’m once again reminded of our inevitable journey. I reason with myself: would I want him to live forever, to be stuck here indefinitely? Selfishly, yes. My father was once so full of life, strong but soft, patient, a continual calming presence who was loved by so many who crossed his path personally and professionally. “One of the good guys,” my mom used to say, before she jabbed him in the ribs with her mischievous grin and reminded him, “good guys finish last.” Now, in heart failure, he moves slower, talks slower, forgets details, and when I gently remind him, he nods. “Oh, right,” he says. He’s 91 – or 91.5 as he likes to tell me.
My mother, ten years his junior, passed at 70-years old. Her illness came all at once: she was healthy, and then a routine blood test uncovered that she was in the throes of terminal cancer. My dad’s health issues have been more gradual, a steady stream of blows to his heart. Since my mother’s passing, I’ve reinvented his life by dragging him to dozens of ultramarathons near and far, hundreds of Indy movies which he always humors me through, planned Paris trips to visit family, and a succession of dinners with my friends. In my attempt to heal from my mother’s passing, I was determined to make his life better, to ensure the days he had on earth were full of joy and adventure.
I’m aware my dad can only wind up for so many more days. Watching him diminish, my heart is perpetually breaking. But I’ve learned to keep my fear and dread of his departure to myself. I clung to my mother’s staying alive, and in retrospect, I understand that it was unfair. I believe that the people we love hold on for us until we are ready to release them. My dad is not quite ready to go; I know he still enjoys going out for dinner, watching his westerns on cable, reading the Wall Street Journal daily, and spending time with me. But I will not cling this time. I will not get in the way.
In Experiments in Truth, Ram Dass talks about the impending death of his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, whom he called Maharajji. Maharajji’s followers pleaded for him to stay alive, not to leave, to which he replied, “Don’t be silly; where would I go?”, implying that who we are in the flesh is just one of our incarnations. Spiritually, it’s a heart-warming concept to believe that while our form may leave earth, our soul continues to exist and take on new forms. But when you want to call your deceased loved one, the sentiment is not always gratifying.
My dad has begun to pull out old photographs of my mom, his children and grandchildren, adventures he and I have had over the last decade, and put them in frames which he lines up along a kitchen counter. At first, to me, it was clutter, but witnessing the collection grow each week, now, it fills me with hope. He’s still here. At a certain point, our lives are not about where we will go and what we will do, but where we have been, and who we spent our days and years with. The pictures along the counter remind me to live and capture it all, because one day, those memories will be what I wake up for each day, and the last thing I contemplate before I go to sleep at night.
If I were to write the fiction version of my parent’s story, the space beyond the sun would look something like a lost and found – a repository of memories and images of who my parents once were, of who they were becoming over the years and decades. It would host the versions of themselves they abandoned along their routes to take care of children, tend to their own aging parents, manage their careers and all the left turns that comprise a lifetime. In the story version, with so much time and space after everything had come and gone, they would have the opportunity to breathe new life into any of those old renderings of themselves they chose, become again who they were at stages of their lives and explore new routes, unencumbered by age and sickness.
When they were done reminiscing and reinventing, I’d have them settle into their lounge chairs, facing the sun, basking in golden light beside one another, content to take in the view from the other side.